Jul 182010
 
Recent animation, Mount Everest at the top right.
Image via Wikipedia

David Breashears is one of America’s legendary mountain climbers, a man who has climbed Mount Everest five times and led the Everest IMAX film team in 1996.

These days, Mr. Breashears is still climbing the Himalayas, but he is lugging more than pitons and ice axes. He’s also carrying special cameras to document stunning declines in glaciers on the roof of the world.

Mr. Breashears first reached the top of Everest in 1983, and in many subsequent trips to the region he noticed the topography changing, the glaciers shrinking. So he dug out archive photos from early Himalayan expeditions, and then journeyed across ridges and crevasses to photograph from the exact same spots.

The pairs of matched photographs, old and new, are staggering. Time and again, the same glaciers have shrunk drastically in every direction, often losing hundreds of feet in height.

“I was just incredulous,” he told me. “We took measurements with laser rangefinders to measure the loss of height of the glaciers. The drop was often the equivalent of a 35- or 40-story building.”

Mr. Breashears led me through a display of these paired photographs at the Asia Society in New York. One 1921 photo by George Mallory, the famous mountaineer who died near the summit of Everest three years later, shows the Main Rongbuk Glacier. Mr. Breashears located the very spot from which Mallory had snapped that photo and took another — only it is a different scene, because the glacier has lost 330 feet of vertical ice.

Some research in social psychology suggests that our brains are not well adapted to protect ourselves from gradually encroaching harms. We evolved to be wary of saber-toothed tigers and blizzards, but not of climate change — and maybe that’s also why we in the news media tend to cover weather but not climate. The upshot is that we’re horrifyingly nonchalant at the prospect that rising carbon emissions may devastate our favorite planet.

Read more . . .

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